Beirut Creatives Speak Out About Loss, Damage, and Their Resilience

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Zuhair Murad Beirut headquarters
Zuhair Murad's Beirut headquarters | Photo: Courtesy of @zuhairmuradofficial

To kill something, you must strike a blow at its vital organs.

The explosion in Beirut primarily impacted Lebanon’s creative districts, Gemmayze and adjoining Mar Mikhael. Located close to the port and less than 1,000 meters from the blast site, this hub is home to the city’s ateliers, workshops, independently owned boutiques, art galleries, museums, and historically significant buildings that have stood since the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Described by many as the “beating heart” of Beirut’s creative center, the blow the community suffered was nearly lethal, and will take years to heal.

In order to truly understand why the impact on Beirut creatives is so catastrophic, we must take a wider view. If you live in the MENA region, it goes without saying that Lebanon is the epicenter of fashion. But even outside of the region, the country is held up as a beacon for creativity.

Globally renowned couturiers such as Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, Georges Hobeika, and Reem Acra all hail from Lebanon, many of whom have kept their ateliers operating within the country even after they reached worldwide prominence. Like Paris, the fashion center of the world, Lebanon has produced some of the finest fashion minds on the planet, and is built on the foundation of workshops, artisans, craftspeople, and textile manufacturers, all of whom offer tangible support to the fashion industry. 

The fashion designers of Lebanon do more than just create beautiful collections season after season. They are pioneers; they have broken ground by being the first to establish Arab representation at Fashion Week. Some, like Rabih Kayrouzhave gained official couture designations by haute couture’s governing body in Paris, Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. They have all been instrumental in bringing up a new generation of designers, in imparting to them the wisdom of traditional craftsmanship, in educating them, and sharpening their skills.

Saab teamed up with London College of Fashion to create a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fashion at Lebanese American University, while Kayrouz worked with the Alba Fashion School and helped start the Starch Foundation to benefit emerging designers. Acra has been instrumental in grooming young designers in her role as a judge on the Arabic version of the reality fashion competition show Fashion Star

But what have they benefited from being faithful to a country whose government has not been faithful to them? Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, Rabih Kayrouz — all of them were devastated by the blast in Beirut, all of them saw their ateliers and workshops shattered to pieces.

Sandra Mansour atelier destruction Beirut
Photo: Courtesy of Sandra Mansour

Yet, before the explosive detonation of ammonium nitrate decimated the city, Beirut creatives were already struggling. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, fashion designer Sandra Mansour shared, “We’ve been facing a lot of challenges. We’ve been adapting to this situation since October 2019, when our bank system and economic system crashed. Then came the pandemic; it became worse. We had to deal with how to survive. Now the explosion… it’s even worse.” 

We had to deal with how to survive.

Fashion designer Hussein Bazaza laid out his preexisting financial situation, saying, “The economic crisis in Lebanon meant whatever we got in whatever mode of payment in whatever rate of currency in our bank account could barely be retrieved. Plus, there’s the fact that we already do not have exterior help from any investor… the list goes on.”

Melanie Dagher is a Creative Director and Fashion Consultant who works with the non-profit organization Fashion Trust Arabia. Her job necessitates work with dozens of creatives throughout the Middle East, coordinating them for large-scale projects and events. Highlighting the unique difficulty of trying to work across the region, while being in Beirut, Dagher stated the following in an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, “Before the explosion we were facing – like anywhere in the world – a big uncertainty because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were not able to plan any event or project properly. This obviously made it harder to gather sponsors, and funds. We tried as much as possible to keep it going by supporting the regional designers and spreading their talent worldwide through our online platforms.”

From hardship to hardship, uncertainty to uncertainty, the group of Beirut-based creatives we spoke to were already doing everything they could to navigate an ambiguous future. The fortunate among us have been quarantined or living through lockdown around the world from the comfort of home, with functioning electricity, seamless Wifi, ample shows to stream online, and groceries delivered right to our doors whenever we want. It’s hard to imagine the exhausting climb to overcome the daily challenge of working and living in a country that was already digging its fingers into the edge of a bottomless abyss, trying not to fall in.

 

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These images might be disturbing, but these images are the reality. And the world needs to know. It was hard for me to share more but at that point, when facing a crime against humanity what we have left is our voice. I don’t know how i am alive, but I am. I feel dead inside though. I don’t even recognize myself. My neighbor died between my hands. Blood was everywhere… We have nothing to lose anymore. This traumatizing nightmare will haunt us for life. We survived a nuclear bomb. Waking up every morning with a knot in your stomach, without a home, in physical pain, crying, having scary flashbacks, shouldn’t be something any human should go through. And i say this because our leaders are not human beings. Our leaders deserve to slowly die one by one. And they will. We will never EVER give up. It’s a very hard trauma to express and i would like to say that i am here to talk about it. Despite everything we need to talk about it, express our fears and sadness. Please reach out to me if you need to talk, we are all in this together 🙏🏼 Thank you for all your donations and support from all around the world, friends abroad, childhood friends, school friends, people i barely know, people i dont even know…your support is what is keeping me on my feet ❤️🙏🏼

A post shared by Mélanie Dagher (@melaniedagher) on

When 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded on the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, the extent each creative suffered was extensive, the emotional toll immeasurable. Dagher herself was physically injured, when her roof caved in and a door fell on her head. She received over 30 stitches on her head, 15 stitches on her legs, a dislocated shoulder, and a neck injury. Her apartment, car, and offices were destroyed. Furthermore, through her work with Fashion Trust Arabia, she is “directly linked and in touch with all the designers here in Beirut.” She continued, “seeing them losing their ateliers and their studios breaks our hearts.”

Stylist Amine Jreissati, a dear friend of Savoir Flair with whom we’ve worked for years and who has styled some of our most incredible editorial shoots, was unreachable for hours after the explosion. We experienced the panic of not being able to get through to him, and then the devastation of learning he was severely injured in the hospital. He has since been released, only to discover that he had lost everything in a matter of seconds. “I don’t have a house anymore,” he said. “I’ve been injured, not to mention the mental trauma of it all. Business-wise, my showroom exploded, we don’t know where to start, or how to start or even if we want to start.”

Hussein Bazaza, whose showroom and atelier were in the Sodeco Area, suffered from shattered windows, fallen scaffolding, and more. “The business couldn’t catch a break; we’re going to have to rebuild,” he shared.

When we spoke to couturier Rabih Kayrouz last year, he had just moved into his new atelier, a gorgeous 19th century palace. At the time, he was so thrilled; he had just moved into his dream location. Now, his dreams lie shattered, literally, and not in a poetic, metaphorical way. In Gemmayze, less than 900 meters from the blast, his historic atelier was destroyed. Kayrouz himself suffered a brain hemorrhage, two blood clots, and 22 stitches. And yet, when he relayed the information to his followers via Instagram, he concluded, “We will rebuild… and we will dance!” The human spirit, so resilient, so determined, will break your heart with its ineffable beauty. 

The human spirit, so resilient, so determined, will break your heart with its ineffable beauty. 

Sarah Beydoun of Sarah’s Bag has spent more than 20 years creating not only a brand, but a movement. Designed to revive craftsmanship and employing and empowering almost 200 women, her work has been instrumental in rehabilitating the lives of women in Beirut. While her team left the office at 5:30, narrowly missing the worst of the blast, the material effects were still very real. She shared, “We grew up in the war, and I vowed never to live it again. However, in one day we saw more horror than I have seen in years. It’s very painful to see everything you worked for all these years destroyed. It’s painful to see the heart of Beirut bleeding. It [affected] the area where most of the creatives work and reside.”

Azzi & Osta – who had just moved into a beautiful new location in one of Gemmayze’s historic buildings, which housed their atelier, showroom, and archives – was on the front line of the explosion. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, the brand shared, “Ready-to-wear production has all been lost, and we will need to start from scratch. Our teams were injured, and of course, [they were] mentally and physically traumatized like all of Lebanon.”

Lebanese jewelry designer Gaelle Khouri’s workshop was not in Gemmayze, but was still impacted by the blast. “The manufacturing area of Burj Hammoud, where my workshop and other manufacturing workshops are located, has been severely impacted and the production equipment incurred great damages,” Khouri shared in an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair.

Damage at Hussein Bazaza's business
Damage at Hussein Bazaza's business | Photo: Courtesy of @husseinbazaza

Roni Helou, whose atelier (where he also lives) is in Mar Mikhael, experienced severe damage due to the proximity to the blast. “I was on my balcony and luckily decided to go inside right before it happened,” he shared. “The impact of the explosion caused windows to blow up and doors and furniture to fly off, but we take solace in the fact that our building is still standing, unlike so many other residents of Beirut who are now homeless or displaced. Our losses consist of the tangible physical damages but also of cancelled projects and missed work opportunities that have all been affected by the tragedy. We estimate an approximate loss of $18,000.”

Even businesses that weren’t completely destroyed are seeing psychological traumas play out

Meanwhile, Andrea Wazen’s boutique and offices in Mar Mikhael were rendered unrecognizable. “At this point, I can’t really explain the effects of the damage in terms of business,” she shared. “I can explain the physical effect. The state of the office and boutique are dramatic, they were completely destroyed. Nothing was left, we weren’t able to save anything in terms of furniture, but we were able to save some stock. Beirut is home to so many fashion designers. It’s important to highlight what these designers are going through, in order for them to get international support.”

Even businesses that weren’t completely destroyed are seeing psychological traumas play out. Delphine Edde, who oversees Webedia Arabia and has offices in Beirut, shared, “We are forever grateful that our Beirut staff survived the tragic explosion with only material damages that are being fixed as we speak… We don’t know what the consequences of this incident are so we will take it one step at a time. What we will try to do (for those who need it) is organize some mental health therapy to our Beirut staff and our Lebanese colleagues in the GCC.”

The before and after of Andrea Wazen's storefront | Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Wazen

Proposed solutions are as many and varied as there are needs. Many creatives require direct help in terms of finding adequate banking systems, in order to support their creative teams and what is left of their businesses. Others need money to rebuild destroyed buildings, as well as to dig them out of metaphorical financial holes. Bazaza brilliantly proposed that Fashion Week entities waive the exorbitant participation fees for Beirut designers to present.

The purest gold is refined by the hottest fire, and Lebanon has been the proverbial furnace for decades.

Jressiati, who is optimistic about the fact that the global community stands with Beirut, is doubtful about the future of the local industry. “Even if we get all of the funds and decided to start again and produce here and to buy from here, the economic crisis is not over,” he explained. “We are in captive control, we don’t have access to our money, our currency is hyperinflated. One dollar jumped from 1,500 to 10,500 in conversion rates in a matter of weeks. We cannot import anymore. That means I cannot produce what I need to produce, production costs also went up tremendously. Even before the explosion, designers either had to produce much less or create much smaller collections.”

Khouri created an eloquent outline of what the creative community in Beirut needs to move forward: “Global industry players such as boutiques, gallery owners, and journalists can provide a wider space on their platforms to the creative talent coming out from Lebanon.” She also points out that education would be a key element, offering tangible assistance, “The global creative community can offer technical education and labor training in fashion design and jewelry making. This would on one hand, guarantee that the knowledge and artisanship skills in Lebanon are passed onto the next generation, and not in danger of extinction as is the case today; and on the other hand, improve Lebanon’s labor productivity levels that will in return boost the industry’s global competitive edge.”

The purest gold is refined by the hottest fire, and Lebanon has been the proverbial furnace for decades. Its creative community exemplifies the resulting strength and purity of being tested by hardship, over and over again. Yet, without the acknowledgement, aid, and continued support by the global community, their struggles will remain incalculable. If you are a fashion power broker, a stakeholder, event organizer – or know someone who is – you can help Beirut creatives realize a better future. Only with solidarity of effort can we help lift them out of the ashes, and restore them. 

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